The Corner

Politics & Policy

Cobblers and Lasts

In the snack aisle at a Walmart in Crossville, Tn. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Since Donald Trump’s election, or even before, several liberal political groups that once had tightly defined areas of concern have greatly expanded their focus. The Anti-Defamation League, which was established to fight anti-Semitism, has broadened its activities to embrace much of the standard progressive agenda (e.g. “education equity,” “LGBTQ rights”). The American Civil Liberties Union, once a stalwart defender of constitutional rights, whose work on First Amendment issues even drew accolades from conservatives, has decided that now it’s having second thoughts about all this freedom-of-speech stuff; and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which did some good work in the 1970s using the law as a tool to take down homegrown terror cells, now has set up a lucrative (though risky) racket of indiscriminately branding conservative organizations as hate groups.

What led these venerated organizations to abandon their particular concerns and try to turn themselves into Your One-Stop Leftist Shop? The Willie Sutton Principle, of course: That’s where the money is — and, in this case, the passion as well. Anti-anti-Semitism, strict fealty to the Constitution, and exposing actual hate groups are all boutique products, while opposition to President Trump, and to conservatism in general, is a booming mass market. So it only makes sense for these groups to branch out.

In the world of marketing, this sort of move is called either “line extension” or “brand extension”; the latter term is broader, though the distinction is not always sharp. When Yves Saint-Laurent or Ralph Lauren expands from rich people’s clothing into umbrellas and eyeglasses, that’s line extension; when Donald Trump goes from rich people’s housing to steaks and shirts to selling himself as president, that’s perhaps the ultimate example of brand extension.

Maneuvers like this often pay off in the short term: People want to try new products from their favorite brand (thus 157 varieties of Lay’s Potato Chips). In the long term, they’re trickier to maintain. If you build consumers’ trust and expand carefully, the strategy can work; if you expand willy-nilly and appear to neglect either your original brand or its new offshoots, you will lose trust. As one consultant recalls:

John Deere . . . came very close to damaging their brand when they first went “consumer” with their lawn care products at big box retail. Black and Decker failed more than once, when trying to enter the “pro” power tool market. They eventually dug DeWalt out of the archives and the rest is history.

Right now, the money spigot is running full blast on the left, so everyone is happy. But what will happen when Trump is gone? Will there be any reason for liberals to support the ADL, ACLU, and SPLC over more-established outfits? These groups were respected, even by their opponents, for staying true to their principles, but now the main principle they apply is “Trump sucks” — which is fine as long as Trump continues to make enemies left, right, and center, but he will leave office someday. And then what will they do, when their Unique Selling Proposition is gone and there are 20 other brands selling the exact same stuff?

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